By BRUCE DENNILL
Calling Me Home / Directed by Magdalene Minnaar / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Large budget, large scale, large vision … and large risk. Calling Me Home is a new, original South African musical, joining a list of other productions that have met with varying degrees of success, including 1959’s King Kong (currently being revived), Ipi Tombi, Sarafina, Kat & The Kings – or any of the other 12 musicals that David Kramer alone has written – and the recent Marikana The Musical.
The development in this case has been interesting, with a focus on the life of the production beyond this initial run even before opening night. This is both exciting and challenging, with this Joburg Theatre staging being at once the show in which all the characters are originated by the South African cast, and a platform for fine-tuning that could perhaps not have been done prior to launch because of the logistics involved.
Local audiences might struggle to fully come to terms with the latter aspect, as many of the beloved West End or Broadway shows that are staged to great acclaim in theatres in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are obviously and provably the final and complete versions of the production, with detailed contracts signed to ensure that formulae are tightly adhered to, with only the personnel changing from version to version. For Calling Me Home, the intent has always been to shape and refine the piece as it developed, and it will be interesting to see how that process plays out during this run and beyond.
The piece looks incredible. Backdrops – and often downstage prop surfaces as well – are stylised projections, instantly recreating a quiet African village or moonlit field; a bustling cityscape or club interior; or important components within or linking those scenes. There is one particular scene in which a group of characters interact and perform atop a moving train that is specifically noteworthy, with the wheels of the train turning and the background changing at the same rate, with details right down to the changing patterns of the shadows inside the train taken into account. It’s an approach that immediately helps the entire show stand apart – fresh, innovative and spectacular. Animation designers Louis Minaar and Werner Burger deserve high praise.
Alice Gillham’s music (she composed the score and wrote the lyrics and the book for the show) is is also excellent. She speaks in the programme of wanting to harness a range of genres (classical, jazz, African and folk) to help her tell the story, but trying too hard to define a niche into which this music fits is problematic, as the locations in which the actions take place are, by design, non-specific – one is somewhere in Africa, the other vaguely American – so an argument about a motif not being authentic in one or other setting is pointless, as the context is imaginary.
There are a number of compositions that immediately stand out, not requiring much in the way of settling in time. The prologue and overture compel upfront; Fly With The Sun (on the train) is fun and frivolous; Handfuls Of Dragonflies is poignant and thoughtful; Burn In The Blaze is powerful and direct; Wait pushes all the buttons (courtesy of Anthony Downing’s fantastic singing; part of a strong performance overall); and In All My Glory brings a number of musical threads together near the end.
The main obstacle between the show as it is now and the show as it hopefully will one day be is the book – not all of it, but several elements. Though Calling Me Home is very long – over three hours – few of its characters are developed in such a way that they become worthwhile investing in to the degree that many established musical characters – from Jean Valjean to Dorothy in the Wizard Of Oz – have over the years.
Of course, this is at least partly down to these characters being brand new inventions, brought to life onstage for the first time. But there are also general story issues that audiences find they need to battle with. What seems initially to be the tale of Grace (Lynelle Kenned, whose singing throughout is superb), a young African woman who flees a civil war but finds that the potential heaven she arrives in has its own problems changes focus to more closely follow the fortunes of Isabella (Samantha Peo, who brings piercing intensity to the role), a troubled singer whose dubious decisions have far-reaching effect. The dual focus is not a problem in theory, but in practice, the sum of these parts somehow doesn’t have the power of one or the other alone.
A more glaring shortfall is the way the script ends, with the loose ends that are still dangling around at the time – and there are a few – all gathered up and shoved into an ill-fitting, catch-all scenario that is unsatisfactory and, because of its placement, rather takes the gloss off what has come before. Extending that section is untenable, given the current length of the piece, so if it is to be fixed, which it surely will be, there will need to be nips and tucks all along the way.
On balance, the excitement is greater than the challenges. Calling Me Home hasn’t tried to be something else, and some technical facets of the production may set a new standard for similar works. The music has much to offer, and original cast recording will be an attractive proposition in its own right when it is released. The themes, too – immigration, displaced people, abuse – are important to keep under the spotlight. Gillham’s widescreen vision deserves support, and this production – like every major musical ever, will remain an evolving organism for some time before settling into its final groove.